Several years ago, on a busy summer day, a customer stepped up to the counter at Village Craftsmen with an unusual question. “Can you tell me the significance of the coins on the tombstones across the lane?” the customer asked.

As most of our readers are aware, Village Craftsmen is located on historic Howard Street, a one-lane, unpaved road on Ocracoke Island. A number of family cemeteries lie beside the lane, and some of the graves date to the early 1800s. Visitors to the island often walk through the cemeteries to read the epitaphs in order to glean a bit of island history.

I had no idea what he was referring to. “What coins?” I said.

The customer proceeded to explain that some of the tombstones had pennies, nickels, dimes and/or quarters placed on them.  I walked across Howard Street to investigate. My parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great grandparents, as well as other more distant relatives, are buried there, but it had been several weeks since I had visited the cemeteries. Sure enough, several markers had a few coins resting on them. I told the customer that I didn’t know the answer to his question, but I assured him that placing coins on tombstones was not a traditional local custom.

Solomon Howard (1807-1853)
Solomon Howard (1807-1853)

Over the next several years I noticed more and more coins laid on local tombstones and monuments. One visit to the British Cemetery revealed many dollars-worth of coins (and even a few one- and five-dollar bills) placed on the markers. A neighbor and I gathered the money in a basket (it totaled more than $200) and passed it on to a representative of the annual British Cemetery Memorial committee.

For millennia, humans have decorated graves with flowers, shells, stones, feathers, candles, and other items. In some cultures, coins, bowls of food, bottles of alcohol, cigarettes and other gifts are placed on graves, or even inside caskets as ways to honor the dead, to bring good luck to the deceased, or to ease the departed into the afterlife.

The modern practice of leaving coins on tombstones apparently has its origin with the military. According to posts shared on social media, different coins convey different messages.

  • Penny – A penny left at a gravesite means you visited there. It is simply a way to honor a departed service member.
  • Nickel – A nickel indicates you trained with the deceased.
  • Dime – A dime left on a tombstone means you served with the deceased person in his or her unit, company, ship, etc.
  • Quarter – A quarter indicates you were with the deceased when he or she died.

There is speculation that the ritual of placing coins on gravestones dates back to Benjamin Franklin (d. 1790) who famously said, “a penny saved, is a penny earned.” According to the Christ Church Preservation Trust in Philadelphia, tens of thousands of coins are thrown onto Benjamin Franklin’s marker each year. The practice has been blamed for causing a significant crack on his marble ledger tablet.

Of course, there is no official protocol for leaving coins on tombstones, and the practice has clearly extended beyond honoring just military members. In recent years family members in some locations have begun honoring their loved ones by placing coins on graves. For many years Ocracoke islanders have decorated graves with flowers and shells, but, as mentioned, placing coins on tombstones is not a time-honored Ocracoke Island tradition.  As this custom grows, surely different people will have different understandings of the symbolism.

Most of the people buried on Howard Street did not serve in the military. Even those who did (including members of the US Life Saving Service and US Coast Guard) may not have military markers. And most, if not all, of the coins seem to have been left by island visitors, not by local family members. Perhaps visitors to Ocracoke simply wish to honor the many generations of sturdy islanders who have lived on this beautiful barrier island and endured storms, hurricanes, shipwrecks, and isolation from the mainland.

Edgar Howard (1904-1990)
Edgar Howard (1904-1990)

As mentioned, the coins left at the British Cemetery are periodically collected and used to fund the annual memorial ceremony. Coins on Howard Street family cemeteries are used to help clean and maintain the graves.


Summer greetings from Ocracoke!

As usual, the island community came together for a creative, whacky, fun-filled July 4th celebration last month.  The highlight of the day for me is always the traditional Independence Day parade.  Begun in the 1950’s (after the Navy and the state of North Carolina had paved enough of the roads to make a parade possible), the modern day version is every bit as funky as the original parades.

Every entry is conceived and executed by local residents or visitors using whatever material is at hand — boats, tree limbs, canvas, paint, what-have-you.  This year the parade had more entrants than ever, and the streets were lined with people all the way from Captain Ben’s Restaurant, past the Island Inn, where the judges sat, to the Preservation Society Museum, where awards were handed out.

This July Kathy Scarborough and friends topped the awards with their version of Amtrak’s rail service to Ocracoke Island.  Their silver “Viewliner” train, dining car, and towed boat sported an authentic whistle, clouds of white smoke, and a cadre of excited passengers waving and dancing to lively island music.  Numerous Amtrak brochures were on hand for distribution along the way.  You can read more about Amtrak’s brochure in our April 1, 2002 newsletter.

Best of Parade, Amtrak’s Viewliner Train:
Parade Float
For this year’s parade, Village Craftsmen joined forces with Natural Selections Hemp Shop to celebrate one of our local island legends.  You can read about “Old Quawk” in an earlier newsletter.  In the photo below, you can see me dressed as Old Quawk, in a sinking skiff, raising my fist to heaven as a lightening bolt strikes my boat from a menacing storm cloud.  We won second prize in our category, outflanked only by 7-year-old Emmett Temple riding his bicycle and being chased by a fierce Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Old Quawk inveighs against the gods:
Old Quawk Float

Other entries were colorful and creative.

Fat Boys Fish Company tows their skiff in the parade:
Parade Float

Day Care children portray the newly discovered Civil War Fort on Beacon Island:
Parade Float

This season saw the introduction of two new books about Ocracoke. The Ocracoke Walking Tour & Ocracoke Island Guide is a delightful addition to any collection of Ocracoke books. With vintage and contemporary photographs to complement the superb writing, it will guide you on an entertaining and informative tour through the village historic district.  From this one publication you can capture much of the flavor of island life from years past.

Ocracoke Walking Tour:
Walking Tour
I would be less than forthcoming if I neglected to mention that one of the reasons I am so taken with this book is the photograph on page 22.

Photo from Ocracoke Walking Tour:
Pip with Uncle Stanley

On the left is my great uncle, Stanley O’Neal.  On the right is my father.  Of course that is “your’s truly” sitting between them, on the porch of uncle Stanley’s home on Howard Street, in the early 1950’s.

Another interesting book published this year is Paul Mosher’s Pieces of Eight and Ocracoke.  Written in a conversational style, almost as if the author is sitting on the porch sharing his many years of experience with you, this book includes a general  history of coins as they relate to Ocracoke island, and specifically the story of the 1783 Spanish dollar that Paul found on the island when he was a child.

Pieces of Eight & Ocracoke Island:
Pieces of 8

A Spanish Coin from 1776:
Spanish Coin

Of course, rare coins are not common on Ocracoke.  However, it is not unheard of for someone to find a valuable coin in the village or on the beach.  Reports surface periodically of old coins washing up on the ocean side, and as recently as 1996 a neighbor spotted a 150-year-old coin in Howard Street after routine road grading.

1850 One Cent Piece found on Howard Street:
1850 One Cent Piece

And, of course, Paul Mosher found his piece of eight on the sound side of the village in the shallow water.

On your next visit to the island keep your eyes open.  You might be the next lucky person who stumbles across a long-lost part of some forgotten treasure that belonged to Blackbeard himself!

All the best to you,

Philip and the entire staff at Village Craftsmen